“The Conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document, which is a description of the finale of the Battle of Gettysburg, was written not only to detail and narrate the scenes which Samuel Wilkeson had been sent to report upon, but also to communicate his own pain, caused by the brutal death of his son at the same battle. Even though his pain is apparent in the document, his pride at his countrymen and distaste for such a gruesome affair also shine through. The quote above defines his own feelings toward the battle–not that it is something to be praised, but that it is so horrible that he can barely comprehend its magnitude, nor will anyone else be able to do so either. While there were many reports of Gettysburg, this is perhaps the only one written with ink infused with so much heart and sorrow of the journalist.

Summary Overview

This document, which is a description of the finale of the Battle of Gettysburg, was written not only to detail and narrate the scenes which Samuel Wilkeson had been sent to report upon, but also to communicate his own pain, caused by the brutal death of his son at the same battle. Even though his pain is apparent in the document, his pride at his countrymen and distaste for such a gruesome affair also shine through. The quote above defines his own feelings toward the battle–not that it is something to be praised, but that it is so horrible that he can barely comprehend its magnitude, nor will anyone else be able to do so either. While there were many reports of Gettysburg, this is perhaps the only one written with ink infused with so much heart and sorrow of the journalist.

Defining Moment

The subject of this document was clearly the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from July 1, 1863 through July 3, 1863. In this battle, which is infamous for having the highest number of casualties in any battle of the Civil War, Major General George Gordon Meade led the Union troops against the Confederates, led by General Robert E. Lee. This was the second attempt by General Lee to invade the North. This three-day battle ended with Lee’s forces being turned back and a victory for the Union. Furthermore, General Lee and the Confederate forces did not plan any more offensive maneuvers against the North. Since that time, the Battle of Gettysburg has been the subject of much fascination by historians, both professional and amateur. And while not considered a particularly important battle at the time, it is now regarded as a pivotal moment in the Civil War.

This document was written by Samuel Wilkeson as part of his job reporting for The New York Times. As such, his audience was any subscriber to his newspaper during the time period in which the report was published. It contributed to both the social and political feeling of the time. Because the newspaper was the only way in which contemporary people could learn about the events of the war, reporters had significant influence over the population. Through their reports they could highlight the horrors of war, incite passion and patriotism for the cause and the troops, and even sway public opinion. There were many reports from the Battle of Gettysburg, for forty-five reporters were sent in to the town in order to gather information. The styles of these reports varied by the individual reporters’ backgrounds and personal influences. One such reporter was Thomas Morris Chester of the Philadelphia Press, who was the first black reporter in the Civil War to work for a major newspaper. Many of his reports had a distinct trend toward reporting the events as they concerned African American troops, which would clearly show his own personal interests. Likewise, while doing his duty to report the facts about the battle, Samuel Wilkeson was also able to express his horror at the bloodshed and his own grief from the loss of his son. Such intricacies set him, and other reporters, apart from any simpler, dry recitation of the events.

Author Biography

The life story of Samuel Wilkeson has been somewhat obscured by time, but his work for the New York Times during the Civil War has insured his name in history. Born in 1817, he is best known for his work with the Times and for his reporting on the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. One of 500 correspondents who were assigned and embedded with the soldiers fighting in the Civil War, Samuel Wilkeson was also one of forty-five reporters who reported directly on the Battle of Gettysburg.

Wilkeson was from a wealthy and affluent family, his father, also Samuel Wilkeson, helped to found the city of Buffalo. He was married to Catherine Cady, sister of the famous social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They had several sons. Samuel had been assigned to cover the events in which the Army of the Potomac was involved, including the Battle of Gettysburg. Overcoming his own personal loss at the death of one of his sons, Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson, at the Battle of Gettysburg, who was nineteen years old at the time, Samuel managed to complete his assignment and published the following report on the battle.

A year after this battle, his younger son, Frank Wilkeson, ran away from home to join the military, lying about his age, as he was only fourteen years old at the time. Samuel Wilkeson lived long enough to see this same son, having survived his time spent fighting in many battles in the Civil War, follow in his father’s footsteps and being a journalist for the New York Times. While not much more is known about Samuel Wilkeson, his name and the names of his family members have an indelible place in United States history. Samuel Wilkeson died in 1889, but his work continues to shed light on one of the most infamous and bloody battles of the Civil War.

Document Analysis

This document reports the details of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of a spectator, but not just any spectator, that of a trained professional journalist working for the New York Times who had lost his son in that same battle, simply a day before he arrived on the scene. From the first sentence, Samuel Wilkeson shows his dedication to his son and his overwhelming grief for his violent and brutal death. His apparent confusion about how to do his job while in the throes of such depression is infused into every word. This is the aspect of Wilkeson’s article that most sets his report apart from other descriptions of the Battle of Gettysburg–his blatant grieving for his son mixed with his ability still to recount the details of the battle and strategies of each side of the conflict. Wilkeson truly shows his merit as a writer, however, by using poetic language and descriptions to enrich his descriptions and paint for his audience the landscape of the battle.

Expressions of Grief and the Details of the Battle

Wilkeson’s first paragraph clearly gives a voice to the pain which was so overwhelming to him. With the words “in a position where a battery should never have been sent,” Wilkeson both shows a parent’s hate for the battle and conditions surrounding a child’s death and criticizes the battle strategy. But by acknowledging his loss, and then putting that pain aside momentarily, Wilkeson is able to describe for his audience the events of the battle. Beginning with a description of the start of the battle, he then proceeds to outline the strategy of the Confederate leaders. These sentences may reveal that he did not approve of the strategy which was used by the Union generals, although it did lead to a victory for the Union. The geographical placement of the Battle of Gettysburg was more one of chance than true planning, with delays and issues with leadership obstructing General Robert E. Lee’s attempt to move his army to the north against the Union. The actual placement of troops almost entirely favored the Northern side of the conflict, with men, such as Wilkeson’s son, placed on hilltops and in strategic and defensively sound areas. But, as with any battle, men on both sides were injured and killed. Unfortunate though it was, bad luck had more to do with Wilkeson’s son being hit by a mortar shell and dying of shock than any poorly placed battlement.

As Wilkeson states, beginning in the second paragraph, the battle commenced on the 1st of July and General Lee was immediately faced with several issues that led to the Union gaining an upper hand that they would not relinquish for the rest of the battle. Even though Wilkeson reports that “Reynolds,” whose full name and title is Union General John Fulton Reynolds, was killed in the initial skirmish, before the full force of the Union troops could arrive, Lee was not able to do more than move into the weak position that his troops occupied for the remaining of the fighting. Wilkeson spends the rest of the paragraph describing the land upon which the battle was fought–its disadvantages for the Confederate troops and the advantages for the Union soldiers. Wilkeson continues by describing the movement of Lee’s army, his use of shelling, and the Union troops who, valiantly in his opinion, held off the barrage.

The end of the third paragraph, however, has a slightly different tone than a strict report of the details of the battle. As is highlighted in the quote above, Wilkeson describes the losses suffered by the Union infantry and artillery on account of the continuous shelling by the Confederates as “more marvelous to me than anything I have ever seen in war.” This editorializing enlivens his report from a dry retelling of the facts, which could be done by anyone who saw the battle and had a basic understanding of battle tactics and strategy. Because Wilkeson knew there was more to journalism than a simple recitation of events, he was able to create a narrative which brought the far-away scene of the battle home to those who could only learn of it through his article. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, and children all had to wait for journalists to give them the details about those battles which took their family members away from them and into danger. A soulless recitation of events only gives information detached from experience, but in order to be able to comprehend the war which the country had been embroiled in for so long, personal reactions were also necessary.

The Poetry of the Battle

He takes his article to another level of beauty, however, when Wilkeson begins to describe the battle scene using poetic rhetoric. When he writes the fourth paragraph of his report, Wilkeson begins to expand on his basic descriptions using more flowery terms in order to convey the dramatic effect of the battle. With such phrases as “out of the leafy darkness” and “a silence as of deep sleep” color the description of one push of the battle so that it is no longer in the realm of dry retelling. By using such language, Wilkeson was able to aid his readers in becoming a part of the scene and better understanding the tension, pain, and bleakness that haunts a battlefield. Without his ability to weave so eloquent a narrative, much of his contemporary audience would not have been able to identify with those who fought, were injured, and died upon that piece of ground.

Wilkeson continues his narration with juxtaposition of peace and destruction. The quiet and still morning was broken by the sound of a bird, warbling from its perch. This idyllic scene is then shattered by the commencement of Confederate shelling. Later, Wilkeson relates the image of a horse running on three legs, the “hinder one having been shot off at the hock.” Where a running horse should inspire a lightness of spirit and awe at natural beauty and grace, this one only inspires horror. By using such imagery, Wilkeson uses common events–the singing of a bird and the running of a horse–to show his audience the battle and give them something to which they could relate. While many of his readers would never have seen a battle or known the shock of a wounded soldier firsthand, they would all know the morning call of a bird in a tree or how a horse looks pulling a carriage or running through a field.

The last section of Wilkeson’s article is devoted to the ending of the battle, the fierce fighting and the eventually defeat of the Confederate forces. While not as poetic as the preceding sections, his pride in the Union troops and their ability to hold their ground against such an onslaught of Confederate soldiers is apparent in his descriptions of their fighting. Interestingly, he is also positive in his descriptions of the southern troops, describing them as having “perfect form” in their charge and strong in their fighting. His loyalty to the Union won out, however, as he states that they are “equal in spirit, and their [the Confederates’] superiors in tenacity.” While his poetry is not as apparent in these last passages, his heart still is–an attribute which gives his readers the ability to experience his pain and the turmoil of the battle.

With his final paragraph, Wilkeson blends the elements of his writing which have been discussed–the grief, the reporting of facts, and the poetry. When he states that “my pen is heavy” and turns over the remaining reporting to his associate Mr. Henry, his grief for his own child and all who fell at Gettysburg is evident, as is his belief that the work of broadcasting the details to the public must continue. He then describes the clay in which his son is buried and creates the fanciful image of Christ leading the fallen into Paradise, a clear demonstration of his poetic talents. But even through all of this pain, Wilkeson ends on a positive note, declaring the fallen to be envied and that through their sacrifice “the second birth of Freedom in America” has come. While somewhat ahead of his time, as the war would not end for some years to come, this announcement seemed moderately prophetic of the eventual victory of the Union and the freedoms promised to its citizens.

Essential Themes

This document shows the Battle of Gettysburg in a way that few battles have able to be recorded, with a mix of emotion and professional detachment. And it is brought together by the author’s poetic flair which elevates it to something far beyond a sketch of a battle plan or even a recitation of the death of a son. While this article was written with the short-term purpose of fulfilling an assignment and passing information to the public, it had the long-term effect of preserving the firsthand experience of one of the most infamous battles in the Civil War. Furthermore, this account gives life to a battle that for most people is simply a piece of history, tragic but completed. Wilkeson gives personalities to the faces of the dead, names to the bodies, and serves himself as a poignant reminder of all that is lost in battle, for those who fall and those who remain.

There are many historians who, today, declare the Battle of Gettysburg to be a defining moment in the tide of the Civil War. It has been said that once the Union had won that decisive victory, the South was essentially on a downward trend until the end of the war. But even if that is true, and it is consistently debated even to the present day, those who witnessed the battle or fought in it or even led it had no idea that they were participating in something so pivotal. One of the only things they knew for certain, as it is well known today also, was that Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles in American history–horrifying in its destruction and loss of life–a fact which anyone who reads a firsthand account, such as that of Samuel Wilkeson, is unlikely to forget.

Bibliography
  • McElfresh, Earl B. “Fighting on Strange Ground.” Civil War Times 52.4 (2013): 31-36. Print.
  • Shahid, Sharon. “In News History: The Lone Black Reporter of the Civil War.” Washington DC News Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2013. http://www.newseum.org/news/2011/02/thomas-morris-chester.html.
  • “The Civil War and Gettysburg: The Correspondents’ Perspective.” Gettysburg National Military Park. Gettysburg Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2013.
  • Wilkeson, Samuel. “Samuel Wilkeson: “The Conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg”“ California State University Pomona, n.d. Web. 24 Aug. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Cutler Andrews, J. The North Reports the Civil War. [Pittsburgh]: U of Pittsburgh P, 1955. Print.
  • DeAngelis, Gina. The Battle of Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone, 2003. Print.
  • Perry, James M. A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready. New York: Wiley, 2000. Print.
  • Starr, Louis Morris. Reporting the Civil War: The Bohemian Brigade in Action, 1861-65. New York: Collier, 1962. Print.
  • “The Battle of Gettysburg.” Civil War Trust, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2013.
Categories: History Content